At a Cincinnati rally tonight, Donald Trump savaged the NAFTA trade deal. And he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who played a crucial role in getting it passed.
Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s most devoted supporters and a top contender to be his vice presidential pick, isn’t just a long-time backer of the free trade agenda that Trump loves to vilify; he also was one of NAFTA’s most visible Republican boosters, and—as House minority whip when it passed—one of its most effective advocates.
You wouldn’t have guessed it. At the event, Trump made no mention of their policy disagreements as he praised Gingrich.
“In one form or another, Newt Gingrich is going to be involved with our government,” the mogul said.
Later during the rally, Trump heavily hinted that Gingrich remains a favorite to be his running mate.
“I’m not saying it’s Newt, but if it’s Newt, nobody is going to be beating him in those debates, that’s for sure,” the Republican frontrunner said.
When Gingrich gave a short stump speech to introduce Trump at the rally, the former House speaker reciprocated the mogul’s praise.
“Everybody else talks about how they would like to change Washington a little bit,” Gingrich said. Trump “is going to kick over the table.”
The former top GOP lawmaker then urged Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump’s former rival in the Republican primary, to support the frontrunner.
“Your governor who is a good friend of mine, although it’s about time he gets on the Trump bandwagon!”
Gingrich did not broach the subject of free trade—but that was Trump’s job.
Trump didn’t disappoint, calling NAFTA “ the worst, in my opinion, the worst trade deal in the history of this country. It’s not even close.”
Trump added that, because Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, “The jobs are moving. They’re moving down to Mexico, one after another.”
If the mogul picks Gingrich as his running mate, he’ll have a man who knows Congress inside-out—and who has used that knowledge to make NAFTA happen. And Gingrich’s advocacy of the trade deal will make him an easy target for Trump’s conservative critics.
George H.W. Bush negotiated NAFTA (full name: the North American Free Trade Agreement, a historic pact to eliminate trade barriers between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), but it needed passage in the House and Senate before it could become law. So when Bill Clinton beat Bush in 1992, it was up to him to seal the Congressional deal.
At the time, Republicans were in the minority in the House, and Gingrich was minority whip. The job required him to persuade Congressional Republicans to vote the way Leadership wanted them to, by hook or by crook. Political operatives who worked on the Hill at the time said Gingrich went into overdrive to get the pact passed.
And Gingrich himself boasted that he flipped more votes for the NAFTA law than even Clinton and Al Gore did. Under Gingrich’s leadership, 132 House Republicans voted for NAFTA—while only 102 of the chamber’s 258 Democrats backed it. The final vote in the House was close—234 yeas and 200 nays—and some say it wouldn’t have passed if not for Gingrich’s savvy whipping operation.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio was on the opposite side during the fight, on the whip team of then-House Majority Whip David Bonior.
He told The Daily Beast that Gingrich’s vote-getting prowess was impressive. It was also essential, since powerful labor unions adamantly opposed the deal. Most House Democrats opposed the pact, so maximizing Republican support was key.
And Gingrich got it done.
“In those days, we had more moderate Republicans who were a little more concerned about the position of labor,” DeFazio said. “So I would say it was definitely a testament to his skills as whip that he got that large supermajority that eked the thing through.”
Ed Kutler, who was Gingrich’s senior policy advisor on trade issues at the time, said the then-House Speaker regularly grilled him on trade issues.
“I remember joking that there were some trade experts in town who I would be on speed dial with,” Kutler told The Daily Beast. “‘Newt raised questions! Can you talk to me about it? Can I have you come up to talk to the whip?’ He would constantly question conventional wisdom.”
He added that NAFTA was one of the toughest challenges for then-Whip Gingrich. But his penchant for strategy and attention to detail paid off.
“He’s one of the very few members I’ve ever seen who, when they sit down with a member of congress, has a pad of paper and a pen in his hand to take notes on what people are saying to him,” Kutler said. “He’s a good listener, and he figures out, what does Joe need or Jane need to get him or her to a yes.”
Gingrich himself was acutely aware of the high stakes and logistical challenges of getting support for the deal.
“I feel like we’re in the third overtime of a basketball game and we’ve been running a full court press,” he said about a week before it passed.
Fortunately, he had allies in high places. Dan Meyer, who was Gingrich’s chief of staff at the time, said the whip worked well with Clinton on the issue. Meyer attended a meeting in the Oval Office between Gingrich, Clinton, and a few other staffers strategizing a member-by-member approach.
Gingrich would later boast about his success working with Clinton, referring to their partnership as the “Clinton-Gingrich Pro-American Growth Team.” And, never one to err on the side of humility, Gingrich also did a little horn-tooting about his superior ability to woo congressmen.
“I got more votes for NAFTA than Clinton and Gore did,” he told The Daily Beast last year. “There were a lot of places where we were able [to work together].”
Since getting it passed, Gingrich has taken a tone on NAFTA that is, shall we say, equivocal.
“I basically agree with Trump’s speech on trade,” he told Politico, citing the fact that China steals intellectual property and things are different now, or something. A Gingrich representative didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast about this story.
That won’t placate his critics. Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist and former spokesperson for an anti-Trump group, called Gingrich’s effort to realign himself “craven and brazenly hypocritical.” Then again, it may not matter.
After all, it’s 2016. And nothing matters.